Right Livelihood: The Twelve Ethics of Work

82 pgs; 6” by 9”; text; dialogue

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A young man, perhaps in his early 20s, visits his uncle who discusses with him the ethics of work, ethics based on what his uncle refers to as  human logic.

This book is ideal for high school and college students, also for individuals just entering the workforce, individuals who might be interested in a work ethic consistent with a right livelihood.


Right Livelihood defined: working is such a way so as to expand awareness, reduce suffering, refine character; a way of working that leads to one’s full maturity, that serves the best long-term interests of both individual and larger community, part and whole.

Opening pages

It had been another difficult morning for young Mr. Patchet. His situation at work had worsened and things were starting to get out of hand. He needed a break, a walk instead of lunch to collect his thoughts.

How long had it been, he wondered, since he had looked forward to his work? In recent months he had felt his motivation ebbing away, his desire to participate—let alone excel—appearing only on occasion. Was he somehow responsible for the dissatisfaction he felt? Had he gotten off track? Or was he now, and at last, simply awakening to the harsh reality of the work-a-day world?

Young Mr. Patchet was lost in his thoughts, his preoccupation such that he failed to notice the man hailing him from across the street. It was, he realized as the man drew near, his beloved uncle whom he had not seen in years.

“Nephew,” cried the uncle as they embraced, “why the long face? The whole world got you down?”

“No, no, Uncle. It’s my work. Please…my apologies. It’s wonderful to see you.”

The two men strolled, catching each other up on the events of recent years. There had been much that had transpired in both of their lives and both were eager to hear the details. It didn’t take them long to find their stride.

“So, tell me,” his uncle inquired at last, “what is the problem with this work of yours? It can’t be that bad. You’re employed and these are difficult times. I’m sure there are those who would be delighted to trade places with you.”

“Yes, I know,” replied his nephew. “And I am grateful to be employed. It’s just that I thought it would be different than it is.”

Young Mr. Patchet explained to his uncle that he had not found fulfillment in his work; rather than satisfaction, he had found office politics, the hoarding of personal power, disgruntlement and malaise.

“I was not prepared for the world of work, at least as I have it now,” he concluded. “I was naïve. That’s all I’m saying.”

“’The world of work’”, his uncle repeated. “Maybe you don’t know how to work,” he said. “Many people don’t, you know.”

“What do you mean, Uncle? Most people do know how to work, or so it seems to me. They spend their lives doing it.”

“In my opinion,” replied his uncle earnestly, “many people waste their lives at work and they do so simply because they do not know how to work, not fully and to their own advantage. They know how to put in their time, that’s true. They know how, in general, to get by but they do not know how to make their work ‘work’ for them. It’s one of the reasons so many people feel dissatisfied with their work. No, Nephew, the dissatisfaction you describe is not yours alone. It’s widespread.”

Young Mr. Patchet had never heard his uncle express this view. Not that it seemed unreasonable; indeed, he could imagine how it might be so. Still, it surprised him.

“Well, then, Uncle, what about you? Do you know how to work?”

“I do,” he replied. “But it took me many years, and many false starts.”

“Then tell me. Save your dear nephew the trouble. What is the secret?”

“There’s no secret,” his uncle replied. “Most work can be honorable. It depends largely on how you go about it. The trick is to make sure that you get what you need while, at the same time, fulfilling—if not exceeding—the needs and requirements of those for whom you work. To work in any other way will lead to the disillusionment you now feel.”

Young Mr. Patchet considered his uncle’s comment. “I’m not sure it’s possible,” he said after some thought. “With all due respect, it seems to me that my needs and my employer’s needs are often at odds. And sometimes deeply so.”

“Sometimes, perhaps.” replied the uncle. “But more often than not, your needs and your employer’s needs are the same. If you were the employer—and some day you might be—I would say the same thing. At the deepest level, your needs are the same.”

“If that is so, Uncle—and for the sake of discussion I’ll grant that it is—then how can I, or anyone for that matter, work so that the needs of both parties are met?”

“More than anything else,” his uncle replied, “it has to do with ethics, but in a way far more specific than most people realize.”

Both men could see that their topic required more time than either had available; yet, each was eager to continue. “Come to the country this weekend,” said the uncle. “Make a day of it. I can’t remember when you last visited.”

Young Mr. Patchet was thrilled. His uncle’s invitation meant that he would travel north, through countryside he loved. It meant that he would spend the day with his uncle, a wry and philosophical man who had always had his nephew’s interests at heart. And it meant that he would have the opportunity to discuss the problem of work, the ethics of work, work at a deeper level, as his uncle seemed to suggest. Young Mr. Patchet relished the thought.

The week passed quickly and soon young Mr. Patchet was on his way, riding through countryside he had not seen in years. It brought back a flood of memories.

“Welcome,” greeted his uncle as young Mr. Patchet arrived. “I thought you might like to go for a walk. It’s a beautiful day and it’s been a long time since you’ve traipsed this countryside of ours.”

His uncle was right. The years away at school followed by the demands of finding and adjusting to work had kept him away. He could not remember spending time on his uncle’s land except as a boy.

After a mile or so, they arrived at the pond where young Mr. Patchet had learned to skip rocks. To the south was a view of the entire valley.  The two men relaxed and enjoyed the view.

Finally, young Mr. Patchet broke the silence. “Before leaving town, I looked up the word ‘ethics.’ According to the dictionary, it has to do with standards of conduct, your duty to do what is right for individuals and society and to avoid what is wrong.”

“Yes,” responded his uncle, “That’s correct. But I would add what the Japanese have to say about ethics. Their term for ethics, rinri, translates as human logic and in my view that adds an important element to the definition, especially when it comes to work.

“Human logic, Uncle?”

“Yes,” his uncle replied, “guidelines or rules for educating, maturing and enlightening yourself. That’s what I take the phrase to mean.”

“That’s quite a mouthful, Uncle… rules for educating, maturing and enlightening yourself.”

“It’s about an approach to work, an approach to life, really. To work in accord with the ethics that embody human logic educates you. It teaches you about your work and about how to work, but it also teaches you about you. It educates, matures and enlightens you.”

After a moment’s pause, he continued. “You see, Nephew, we are trying to get somewhere, to the heart of our true nature, perhaps, to the heart of something. And to get there requires work, the work of everyday life, certainly, but work on ourselves, as well. And we do both at once when we approach our work correctly.”

“And that means, I presume,” said young Mr. Patchet, “working in accord with human logic.”

“Yes,” replied the uncle. “And that is what I want us to discuss—the ethics that embody human logic. We will be discussing your experience at work, certainly—that is what brought us together—but our real topic is how to work in a way that matures and enlightens you. That’s what too many people do not know how to do and yet, that is the real job. The irony is that your workplace benefits most when you work in this way. This, however, has me ahead of myself. Up to this point—with this talk of ethics and human logic—are you with me?”

It was late-afternoon. Young Mr. Patchet felt he knew in a general way what his uncle was saying and he was eager to continue.

The two men decided to take the long way back to the house. They covered a lot of ground as the conversation moved from topic to topic. When they reached the house, they were chilled just enough to find the warmth of the wood stove soothing.

“Make yourself at home,” said the uncle as he took his nephew’s jacket. “As you can see, I’ve been preparing for your visit.” Around the room were taped sheets of paper on which the uncle had written his thoughts. Ethic #1, Ethic #2, …

“Some of what I have to say you may reject,” he said. “That is fine. If so, then treat our conversation like a whetstone…an opportunity to sharpen and refine your own ethics. However, to the best of my knowledge what I have to tell you is the truth and could not only save you trouble but could bring you great joy. That, my dear Nephew, I would like very much.”

With that, they began; first reading and then discussing each ethic. It was a discussion that would change the course of young Mr. Patchet’s life. Beginning in the early evening, it would be nearly midnight before they finished. Not until then—under a blanket of stars—would young Mr. Patchet return home.


NOTE: Right Livelihood is one of the books associated with The Ethics of Human Development Training Program. It is a stand-alone text presenting the ethics in dialogue form.

David Thomas, PhD